Check out some of the latest headlines in evolution and biology:
Fungi produce variances in wine grapes
Fungi growing on grapes may contribute to flavor differences between post-harvest grapes from the same vineyard, Phys.org reports. A new study sent researchers to three adjacent, well-established vineyards: traditional, organic and biodynamic, to sample the aromatic and fermentative qualities of the grapes. The least treated vineyard had more variety of fungal species than the others, but the researchers noted that temperature and sun exposure greatly influences the type of fungi present on the grapes.
Sommeliers, take note: Your idea of the best wine may depend on microbes!
Birdsong: Is it really music?
A new Emory University study suggests that when female white-throated sparrows hear a male’s birdsong during breeding season, the same reward system in the brain is activated as when humans listen to music they enjoy, ScienceDaily reports. Neural imaging maps show and compare neural responses to these signals that are “evolutionary ancient mechanisms necessary for reproduction and survival,” according to researcher Sarah Earp.
This suggests that birdsong and music may have similar functions or evolutionary precursors, but there are limitations - many brain regions in humans that respond to music are not found in birds.
Retired chimps face financial challenges
The New York Times notes that while the National Institutes of Health is tapering its use of chimpanzees in biomedical research, it is having financial difficulty in placing retired chimps into retirement facilities and sanctuaries.
Sanctuaries like Chimp Haven in Louisiana provide retired chimpanzees with a more natural environment and social setting than research institutes. The organization says the monetary cap to move and support these chimps will likely be reached this fiscal year.
Two new species of orchid discovered in Cuba, revealing evolutionary history
Researchers in Cuba have uncovered two new species of orchid, ScienceDaily reports. Many orchids have a special type of reproduction, called "deceit pollination," relying on their colors and shapes to attract insects and birds, not on nectar or other substances. One mystery the researchers are trying to solve is whether deceit-pollinating orchids have greater diversity than other nectar-producing species.
By examining the flowers’ petal shapes and sizes, they’re also trying to determine their evolutionary relationship with those on a neighboring island.
Encased in 16,000 square feet of shrink-wrap, Space Shuttle Atlantis sits in the middle of a working construction site at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. The plastic coating was placed on the orbiter to protect it from dust and dirt during construction.
“We want to make sure that it is safe," said Tim Macy, director of project development and construction. Macy and colleagues had 95% of the work done above Atlantis before the shuttle rolled in, “so we really reduced the risk of dropping anything on her.”
Atlantis was the last NASA space shuttle to go into space, and the last to be brought to its museum-style resting place this year. Its landing on July 21, 2011, marked the end of NASA's space shuttle program.
From faraway planets to the deepest depths of the ocean, 2012 has been an exciting year for scientific achievements and milestones.
Humans broke previously unimaginable barriers by detecting an elusive tiny particle and free-falling 24 miles from the edge of space. At the same time, we said goodbye to four retired NASA space shuttles that found new museum-type homes.
Here's our list of the biggest science achievements this year, in order of significance:
1. Curiosity lands, performs science on Mars
Every time I hear the word "curiosity" in a sentence, I'm tempted to butt in and ask if you're talking about the Mars rover Curiosity. She's really there! On Mars! Right now! And people are driving it! (Forgive me, I get excited about this.)
What will you see shining brightly in the sky on Christmas Day? Is it Santa?
Astronomers say it's actually Jupiter and the moon, which will appear quite close to each other Tuesday. According to NASA, even if you live in an urban environment, you should be able to see Jupiter and the moon. From any time zone and either side of the equator, these lights in the sky should be visible to you.
With a telescope, you should be able to see the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, which is a large storm on the planet. This storm itself is twice the length of Earth. You can also see Jupiter's cloud belts and the moon's mountains and craters.
If you live in New York, the moon and Jupiter will seem closest together at 6:25 p.m. EST, according to Space.com.
This could be a great time to give, or receive, a telescope as gift.
Learn more from this NASA ScienceCast:
Even though humans and chimpanzees share 98% of their DNA, there is a great disparity in intelligence between the two species. Scientific American reports that a new study has revealed one reason why: During the first two years of life, human brains undergo a huge expansion in white matter - the connections between brain cells - at a rate twice that of chimpanzee brains.
National Geographic reports that a new species of slow lorises has been discovered in Borneo. Like other slow lorises, the N. kayan produces a toxic bite by rubbing its hands around venomous glands near its armpits and applying the poison to its teeth. Its bite can induce a predator into lethal anaphylactic shock.
ScienceDaily reports that more microbial species than ever thought before are traveling across the Pacific Ocean from Asia to North America via Earth’s troposphere. This layer of atmosphere pools and transports microbes, including several species of fungi and bacteria, during “plume events.”
During spring 2011, scientists collected samples in plumes originating in Asia to detect aerosols and pollutants. Now, using a newer culturing method that looks at biomass in the form of DNA, researchers are able to study bacteria and fungi in these samples that are thought to affect weather patterns. Many of these species are specially adapted to travel long distances in harsh conditions, challenging the old notion that the atmosphere is just a transient place for life.
Scientists have reconstructed proteins and DNA from prehistoric yeast cells, Phys.org reports. By studying these enzymes, scientists can determine which types of sugars these ancient yeasts once digested, deepening their view of the evolutionary innovation of biological catalysts.
Many argue that plants are just as alive as we are. It is not news to scientists that plants are responsive to odors, but earlier instances of this were all plant-to-plant communication, phys.org reports. In a recent study, scientists determined that a tall goldenrod can sense a male fly’s sex attractant and start to prepare chemical defenses to protect itself from the female fly’s damaging eggs.
We've had some compelling space stories in the past two weeks. Read on for some of the best:
Astronomers, looking deep into the universe through the lens of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, saw millions of years further back in time than previously observed.
The Hubble’s wide-field camera 3, used to observe the universe in near-infrared light, revealed images of seven primitive galaxies that are thought to have been formed 13 billion years ago. Scientists believe the Big Bang created our universe about 13.7 billion years ago, so this discovery puts the galaxies relatively close to the birth of the universe.
These results come from a survey of an highly studied patch of sky called the Ultra Deep Field (UDF). One of the goals of a 2012 campaign called UDF12 is "to determine how rapidly the number of galaxies increases over time in the early universe. This measure is the key evidence for how quickly galaxies build up their constituent stars," according to NASA.
A NASA Cassini space mission orbiting Saturn has unveiled high-quality images of a river valley on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s 62 moons. The river, similar to Earth’s Nile River, flows from its “head waters” at Titan’s North Polar region into Kraken Mare, believed to the moon's largest sea.
The entire length along the river valley looked dark in Cassini’s newest high-resolution images, an observation that led scientists to conclude the Titan River is filled with liquid and has a smooth surface.
Titan’s river valley, with hydrocarbons such as ethane and methane, stretches at least 200 miles (400 kilometers) while the Nile River is about 4,100 miles (6,700 kilometers).
Astronomers, studying thousands of stars throughout our Milky Way galaxy, found some giant star clusters that are more than 10.5 billion years old but appeared to look younger than other stars formed around the same time. Scientists say the rate of aging for each cluster differs.
The team of astronomers examined 21 global clusters - a group of stars pulled together by gravity. The study focused on blue stragglers - large and luminous stars that are still alive although they are known to burn out rapidly as they grow old.
The blue stragglers that settled at the center of the cluster because of the heavy weight appeared old while the stars that have spread throughout the cluster looked young, leaving the rest of the rest of the stars in the middle.
Scientists concluded the blue stragglers managed to stay young by consuming all the matter from its surrounding stars.
Remember Cassini? It's the spacecraft launched in 1997 by NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency, meant to study Saturn and its moons. More than a decade after its launch, Cassini has returned beautiful images of Saturn, including this rare photo of Saturn, backlit by the sun so that the planet and its rings are highlighted.
You can also see Saturn's moons, Enceladus and Tethys, on the left side of the planet as two tiny white dots.
What makes this picture so rare? It's an enhanced-color view of the planet, comprised of photos taken using red, infrared and violet filters using Cassini's wide-angle camera. That in itself isn't rare, but the backlighting of the planet is: Photos like these can only be taken when Cassini is in Saturn's shadow.
In 2006, Cassini sent home another backlit shot, in which our own planet makes an appearance, titled "In Saturn's Shadow."
Want this one in all its high-resolution beauty? Happy holidays!
A pair of robotic twins that have been diligently mapping the moon this year went out with a bang Monday.
As scheduled, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory probes Ebb and Flow crashed into a mountain on the moon, ending a fruitful mission to study the surface and composition of the celestial body.
"The two probes were sent purposely into the moon because they no longer had enough altitude or fuel to continue science operations," NASA said.
Robotic probes to make final crash
On Monday, NASA's twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory probes will crash into a mountain on the moon, ending a fruitful mission to study the surface and composition of the moon. The GRAIL probes have been making a high-quality map of the gravitational field of the moon, which give scientists unprecedented insight into what's below the surface and how the moon may have formed.
The impact will occur at around 5:28 p.m. ET. A scientist working on the project said the crash probably won't be visible from Earth.
The International Space Station is going to be getting a new kind of light bulbs in its U.S. section to help fight off insomnia in space, Space.com reports. It's not easy getting rested in space - about half of people who fly away from our planet rely on sleep medication at some point, the article said.
Forty years ago this month was the launch of Apollo 17, the last mission to send humans to the moon.
Italian student filmmaker Giacomo Sardelli created the video. He writes on his blog, "The story tells about a group of pioneer astronauts, working on the ISS to open a Gateway to space for all humankind."
Here's what's been going on in the world of space news recently:
NASA announces multiyear Mars program
The Curiosity rover has been busily driving, scooping and analyzing material on the Red Planet, but there is lots more to be done on Mars. NASA has made plans for a new multiyear Mars exploration program, including the development of a new robotic science rover set to launch in 2020.
The development and design of the next rover will be based on the same architecture as Curiosity, keeping costs down while delivering it to Mars in a way that has already been shown to work.
NASA says the new mission is a significant step to ensure the United States maintains leadership in Red Planet exploration. The United States is determined to send Astronauts back to space sometime in the 2030s.
Including this one, there are seven NASA missions either under way or being planned to study Mars.
Scientists find Green Bean galaxies in space
Observations from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope detected an unusual bright green galaxy that displays the largest and brightest glowing regions ever seen in the universe.
“They are so huge and bright that they can be observed in great detail, despite their large distances,” according to a statement from the European Southern Observatory.
Researchers found 16 more galaxies with similar properties and gave the group of galaxies a new name based on their unusual appearance.
“This new class of galaxies has been nicknamed Green Bean galaxies because of their color and because they are superficially similar to, but larger than, green pea galaxies,” the statement added.
A new look at our planet at night
A NASA and NOAA satellite called Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership has revealed high-resolution images of our planet at night. Data from the new images shows light from natural and man-made objects on the globe in unprecedented detail. That's thanks to a sensor called the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, or VIIRS.
“Satellites in the U.S defense Meteorological Satellite program have been making observations with low-light sensors for 40 years, but the VIIRS day-night band can detect and resolve Earth’s night lights,” a NASA statement explained.
NOAA Weather Service’s forecast office in California uses VIIRS day-night band to improve monitoring and forecasting of dense fog and low clouds at high air traffic coastal airports such as San Francisco airport.
CNN's Elizabeth Landau contributed to this report